'Follow your voice' BAFTA-winning Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer offers TV directing advice
Harry Bradbeer is a BAFTA-winning television director known for helming hit shows such as Fleabag, No Offence, The Hour, This Life, Sugar Rush and The Cops. Mandy News sat down with the British director to find out how he got into television, what his process is and what advice he can offer to budding directors.
Tell us where you are from, how you started in the industry and what led to you directing?
Well, I came from one of the most least helpful places to want to be a filmmaker, which is Devon in the West Country. My father was a doctor and my Mum looked after us. We lived in the middle of a rural community and I never really went to London until I was twenty when I started university. So I had few connections to the media, but I did grow up watching television and movies avidly and I also fell in love with acting at school.
I was the youngest of a family of three children and it was when sitting around the TV, sat on my dad's lap, that I saw people really being caught out by their emotions: laughing and crying. The first time that I saw my father cry was when Starsky’s girlfriend died in Starsky and Hutch! It was astonishing how it affected him. I also remember watching Love Story with everyone and getting aroused and embarrassed at the sexy bits. TV was a very emotive thing for me.
But it was after watching the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show with my grandparents – who lived a few miles away – where I decided on my future. All the family were there and for the first time after a difficult, argumentative day (my grandparents rarely spoke to each other) everyone gathered together suddenly united and laughing. It was so happy! On the way back in the car, I piped up “I'm going to be in the entertainment business!” The family started laughing again, but this time at me. But I was serious.
I was about 8 I think. It was something about wanting to make people laugh and cry and control their emotions – which must be some deep psychological need in me, relating to my own family life: a need to connect. So I came to film from a very emotional place. And after performing at school and university and discovering I wanted to be an actor, I had this sudden left turn.
On my penultimate term at UCL, I went to an audition at RADA and failed. But as I walked out I had a strange feeling - a weird lack of distress. I'd fallen at this major hurdle of being an actor and realised that I didn't feel bad about it! I found myself walking – like in a dream – up the road into UCL Film Society and saying: ”I want to make a film”. And that's where it all changed.
I’d done some directing on stage, but nothing on film. At the FilmSoc I met this terrific cameraman, Guy Wilson, who said basically if you want to direct a film you need a script! He sent me off to write something, I was given ten minutes of reversal film, and together we made a 10 min short about the murderer Reginald Christie. It was a study of the development of his schizophrenia, in which the actor Adrian Schiller played all the parts – including the mother and the father. Families and psychology again! Not knowing two days before that I was ever going to direct a film, I was suddenly getting started.
So how did that roll over into where you are now?
Well, it changed my ambition, because then I wanted to be a filmmaker. Whilst being on the stage was extraordinarily exciting, being behind the camera and directing actors felt like I was using all parts of my brain.
I heard of a scholarship to the University of Michigan, to read telecommunication arts so I applied and amazingly (I’m not sure anyone else knew where the Foreign studies was) I got it. I spent a year out there in Ann Arbor (where Lawrence Kasdan studied) making little films and working at the local TV station. That was half an MA and at the end of the first year, the practical side of the degree was completed.
With some embarrassment, I went to the head of the department and said: “I'm very sorry but I'm not going to go beyond my scholarship period I'm going back to London to start my career”. That was a difficult decision because they wanted me to stay but I realised I just had to get started.
So I returned to London and I was a runner in Soho for a while. But I was a terrible runner! My mind was always elsewhere, I wasn't good at getting up in the morning. That's when I wrote to John Schlesinger whose film Midnight Cowboy I had seen when I was 12 one Saturday night on TV. That had changed my whole perspective on film. There's something about that final scene on the bus - where a man cradling a dead man in his arms was some kind of emotional completion - that fascinated me. It was incredibly cathartic.
Now this is where I have to admit one piece of good luck. John had been mentioned in my family. My mother’s grandmother and his had been close after coming over from Germany before the First World War. My Mum played with him when they were children. And so my letter must have stuck out for him amongst the other aspiring film makers asking for help.
John met me in his house on a very snowy day, and offered me a job as script reader and researcher. I worked for him for 4 years while reading scripts for other companies. John helped me make my first proper short film A Night with a Woman, a Day with Charlie, which I made in the mid-90s and sold to channel 4.
How did that lead to directing full-time?
Well we shot with almost no money in Wales, and with the then-rising star Rufus Sewell. He helped us get the attention of Channel 4, who bought it, paying off my bills but leaving me with nothing else in my pocket. The film opened one of their First Frame series which in those days went out at around midnight. That got some critical acclaim and I got a great agent, St John Donald, at Peters Fraser and Dunlop (now United Agents) who is still with me today.
But getting started professionally took a while. I got a job directing The Bill, which was a great learning ground. But shortly after that is when I got my most important break, when I first worked for Tony Garnett, at World Productions on This Life. This Life felt really different – it was a show that was evaluating and studying a new generation, as well as the legal system. It had an observational style and had something to say. This Life got me addicted to looking for television which had an agenda.
The following year Tony gave me my first show to “set up” and this was The Cops. It was an extraordinary experience – shot entirely in Bolton, where we cast all unknowns. The rules were we couldn't have anyone on the screen that we had seen regularly before, and it had to be shot in documentary style. It did well (won BAFTA for Best Series two years in a row) and was very ground breaking in its way.
The Cops taught me how to choreograph. If you're going to shoot a scene where you can only have one camera position, then for the story to be told the blocking has to be inventive while appearing entirely natural. It’s an amazingly useful skill which I honed on This Life where, similarly, the camera tended to have one vantage point in its cover.
This Life and The Cops taught me how to suspend the audience’s disbelief. I had to learn to sniff out false acting or flashy camerawork; to create people in a world, not actors on a set. And we have to care for them. “Do I believe it and do I care?” Those are the two questions that I ask myself everyday, from a script that I read, from what's on my monitor, or from the performance on the first blocking. Does it affect me and do I believe it, is it real or phoney? These shows taught me how to bring a performance “down” to it’s simplest. Often, the truth is about doing less.
How do scripts come your way?
A script comes to me in various ways; from people I've worked with before, or people who've seen my work and thought it might appeal.
What attracts you to a script?
The main criteria for me are, again: Do I believe it? Do I care? Is it exciting? Does it show me the world in a new way? Is it an exciting voice? It’s so often down to the writer's voice.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s voice was striking and original and as a performer equally so, and she had in her scripts as well as humour, huge amounts of pathos. She was saying something about her generation, she was tapping into some of the flaws and glories of her own age group, so that's why I was drawn to her.
I get sent quite a lot of scripts that are pale imitations of what I've just done. And that's what puzzles people because they say, "why didn't you want to do this? It's just like the thing you’ve done", and I respond saying, "well that's the problem, it is just like that. I want to do something different and new."
When I do read something that strikes me as standing out, my imagination takes over. I start to see what it should look like, what films it might feel like, there are certain things that run through my mind. But I often choose it because I know it's going to stretch me. It's going to take me somewhere I haven't been before, which probably explains why my work is quite varied. I'm just deeply curious, and deeply believe in collaboration. No matter how many ideas I may have, I will never be sick of wanting to work with brilliant people who have their own view of the world.
What's your typical process for going into these projects?
Directing is about using your eyes and ears to absorb what initially the script and then the actors are saying. You're reacting to material and trying to make it speak to the audience the same way it spoke to you. It's about how to channel that script onto the screen.
I try not to get in the way of the actors too much. When they come onto the set, I will try to give them room. I want to see what their first instincts are. You may go into a scene thinking “it’s going to be like this”, then the actor does something extraordinary and you rethink it entirely. Robert Altman described his job as “capturing behaviour", that's exactly the way I see it. You must keep yourself loose, prepare and be ready for the magic, which usually comes from the actor.
What is a typical day of directing like?
Everybody works in their own way. Having done the shot list and storyboards weeks in advance, I'd be doing the final prep the night before. In the morning you'd go in and block with your actors, see what they do before they go in to makeup. Take your time to see whether you've blocked correctly, see that the actors, as well as you, are getting as much out of the scene as you can. Ask yourself if you are telling the story.
The second block is with your D.O.P and script supervisor when you agree on the coverage of the scene, how you're going to shoot it. Then the actors go off for makeup and costume while the lighting is done. Tracks may go down, sound is sorted and hopefully within about an hour of arriving on the set, you're ready to do your first shot. I may start off with a close-up or a wide shot. The advantages of starting wide are you get your ‘master’ and thus continuity is established. But in starting with a close-up you may catch the actors at their freshest.
Where possible I will shoot early, with some explanation to my crew, getting them to understand that things may not be perfectly in focus the first time. You can sometimes get gold on that first raw, unrehearsed take. It's best to hit the ground running to see what arises, because after the third or fourth take people get tired and you may never get it back.
What's your directing preference, do you like seeing the first cut fresh or do you like being involved in all the edits?
I try to steer away, I'm like Dory in Finding Nemo: I just “keep on swimming”. With approximately 9 weeks of shooting, you have to keep going. If you trust your editor they will tell you when something is wrong. However, it is good to see some assemblies to make sure things are on the right track, so I would advise that.
On your shooting day, it's a lot about time management. You have to know which scenes to spend most time on. For example, I've shot a page scene in 6 hours and another page scene in 20 minutes. Directors must care for the details, so set your priorities.
So tell us about how you ended up working on your most recent– and highly acclaimed work – Fleabag which was once a theatre production
Yes, it was first a theatre production, then it was a TV pilot which turned into a TV series at which point I joined.
I came on board to take it to series; take part in storylining, development of the script, and final casting. During the process, a number of directors were interviewed. My pitch was that the comedy was there and her performance was wonderful, but I wanted people to end the series in tears. I saw it as a kind of Greek tragedy – a tragi-comic tale of lost love and loneliness; a hilarious view into a very particular mind. Weirdly, I totally related to the character. The moment I saw her I felt that she was like my sister. I actually told Phoebe in that first meeting: “I AM Fleabag!”
What kind of conversations did you have to get the balance right between the pathos and the comedy?
Phoebe has it in her nature. What she goes for is “tickle, tickle, slap”: lure people into a scene, make them feel safe by making them laugh.. and then stab them in the heart.
Our job was to push as far as we could in those two directions - to have our radar out for both the comedy and the pain and try to make those left turns as unpredictable as possible. In the final scene when she opens up to the bank manager; when she was going to throw herself into the road, and he turns up in his car - that was a left turn we worked on together. It was a moment of deep tragedy because she was about to commit suicide when this supporting character pokes his head out of the window and says “are you alright?”
That’s my favourite scene – the final one in the café. Fleabag’s in a dreadful state and Hugh Dennis (god he’s brilliant) doesn't know how to react. She breaks down and makes this huge confession about her nature, at which point he then walks out to his car and leaves her alone. We feel she has been utterly abandoned… But then he comes back with his clipboard and they restart the interview. “People make mistakes” he says. And she gets a second chance. That’s what the show does for us. It’s redemptive and weird and tragic and funny. Like Jon Voight cradling Dustin Hoffman on a bus. I feel like my career led up to that scene. Life at it’s messiest and most truthful.
How did you and Phoebe come up with the distinctive dark lighting choices for this comedy-drama?
There was a pilot before which established the anamorphic ratio and most of the lighting choices, but I'd say overall with Fleabag there is a contrast between the handheld camera and the anamorphic ratio, which is very interesting tension-wise because you have this highly cinematic trope of the Cinemascope and yet it’s held in the hand. Tony Miller our DOP used an Easyrig, which attaches the camera more firmly against the operator's body and so steadies it. The combination of that and the anamorphic lenses gives you a caught-as-it-happens feel. It’s sort of art and reality in one.
What is your average shooting period for each episode?
Well, you have a little more time the bigger the episode's budget. But on average an hour’s drama would take just under three weeks.
Can you tell us anything about Killing Eve?
It's a psychological thriller about a bored overlooked MI5 operative (played by Sandra Oh) who works in security in a lonely department, who becomes fixated on discovering and exposing a female assassin. Her search for this character takes her to Italy and Russia. It's basically a story of two women and how they change and affect each other.
Tell us what's next for you?
I’m directing a comedy pilot in New York for Hulu. That’s written by another exciting new voice Ramy Youssef and is shooting this December. I have a number of TV projects in development, and I’m planning a movie which involves music in contemporary London.
What projects are currently out there that you aren't working on but you would like to watch as a viewer or any technologies that excite you?
There’s a lot. I love political thrillers. I thought Argo was fantastic. Even though it was all fantasy, it was a clever way of making an entertaining film out of a serious subject. I'm excited about that kind of work.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a glittering career like yours and wants to make interesting work?
Choose scripts that you care about and you believe in, which trigger an emotional response in you and that will translate to others. Cinema is an emotional experience. If you write, write scripts with characters that will attract great actors. Because in the end, the actor is the first storyteller. Follow your voice but do try to take smart people with you.